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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Chippy


It's been fun to watch the squirrels running around my parents' yard, jumping from branch to branch and engaging in acrobatics to reach the bird feeders. We don't have diurnal squirrels on San Juan Island. Other islands like Orcas do, but on San Juan we just have the nocturnal flying squirrel, which I've sadly never seen. Because of this,I've stopped taking them for granted. I didn't spend any time photographing the squirrels on this trip, but recent encounters reminded me of these photos of a very cooperative chipmunk from back in April. I was down at Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge and this little guy was more interested than eating the spring leaves than worrying about my presence.

Tomorrow I'll be heading back to the San Juans, so updates on island wildlife will be forthcoming, I'm sure. I'm participating in the Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, and will definitley post some sightings from that.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Impressions

When I first look through my photos after taking them, the spectacular shots always stand out first: the whale breach, the seal looking curiously right at you, or the bird in flight. Sometimes, however, when going back through my photos again, a more subtle image comes to my attention. Not the animal itself, but where the animal just was. I've started pulling a few of these photos out, calling them "Impression". Here are a few examples, of a harbor seal diving, a pair of raccoon footprints, and a whale breach splash.



Friday, December 26, 2008

Extreme Ice Survey

All this snow and ice (which is finally beginning to melt here in Portland, by the way), reminded me of a link I bookmarked a while back: The Extreme Ice Survey.

This project is the brainchild of nature photojournalist James Balog, who is using a series of 26 time-lapse cameras in places like Greenland and Alaska to document the effects of climate change on some of the worlds largest glaciers. The result is a visually stunning representation of just what is happening to the world's ice fields. While the project continues through next year and will culminate in a documentary film in 2011, you can check out a couple of remarkable video clips that have been released on the site. Just click on "Evidence" along the top menu bar, then "Videos".

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Here in Portland the forecasted warm-up has never really happened, and we actually got a bit more snow overnight last night. The neighborhood has been transformed into a true winter wonderland, and a couple of times we even went cross-country skiing right from my parents' front yard. Luckily, the roads are passable along as you drive slowly, so we were able to get out a little bit to stock up on groceries for our holiday meals and take me to the dentist (yuck!). It looks like everyone should be able to get here for my small family's finest tradition: our Christmas Eve celebrations. I hope you all have a great holiday wherever you may be!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The "Arctic Blast" Continues

You know how unprecedented this type of weather is in the Pacific Northwest when all the news channels go into "24/7 we interrupt your regularly scheduled broadcasting to give you up to the second weather updates" mode. Indeed, it has been remarkable. Yesterday we woke up to 1/8 to 1/4 inch of ice on top of 10 inches of snow as a result of the freezing rain, creating a winter wonderland The Apartment Biologist aptly described as like walking on a giant creme brule. Everything, right down to the very last pine needle, was coated in ice, making for some beautiful outdoor ice sculptures, featured in the pictures with this post. Then, just when we hear the temperatures may start warming up on this Monday, we wake up to an additional four inches of snow!


While we've had traces of snow on Christmas Day as recently as last year, the last time there was more than an inch of snow on the ground in Portland on Christmas was back in 1937. So, we may be headed for our first truly white Christmas in quite some time! This is the most snow we've ever had in Portland at one time in my lifetime, as I think the previous record was back in the late 90s when we had roughly a foot of snow, an amount that has surely been surpassed by now.


All the above pictures were from the icy day yesterday, with the exception of this last one. This shows the approximate snow accumulation as of 11:00 AM on Monday....although with some of the winds on the first day of snow, I'm sure it's even a few inches more.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Birds in the Snow




With all this winter weather my wildlife watching has been restricted to the bird feeders just outside, but that doesn't mean the viewing hasn't been spectacular. Yesterday I spent some time in my parents' front yard, where many birds overcame their typical shyness of people in favor of some unfrozen seed to help keep them warm for the night. Remember to feed the birds near you - they need help to get through this subfreezing weather! I have no idea how the little overwintering Anna's hummingbirds make it through this stuff. Here are a couple of my favorite shots from yesterday. From top to bottom, a red-breasted nuthatch, a black-capped chickadee, and a dark-eyed junco.




Saturday, December 20, 2008

Snowy Trip to Portland

I wasn't quite planning to head down to Portland for Christmas just yet, but seeing a slight break between the winter storms yesterday I made a dash for it. The drive was not fun, but stressful - for the first part of the drive many of the roads were still icy, and near the end of the drive I got caught in a snow storm - but I am relieved I made it! It was the right decision, too, as today we woke up to 4+ inches of snow here in Portland, it is still snowing, and the forecast is for freezing rain tomorrow. And, for the part of the drive where it was light out, the scenery was absolutely beautiful.

I took this picture from the ferry, looking at the snow-dusted islands just outside of Anacortes.


When traffic was slow, I took the chance to take a few photos out the window of my car. This is along Highway 20 between Anacortes and I5.

By the time the sun was setting I had finally made it to I5, but for about 10 miles the freeway was completely icy and it was slow going at about 15 mph. You can see a misty fog over the ground in this photo. I was worried it would get foggy, but luckily it never did.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Feeder Footsteps

The bird feeder has been a bustling center of activity during these below-freezing days, and the light blanket snow captures impressions of the comings and goings of juncos, sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches.


The closer you get to the feeder, the more intense the frenzy becomes:


I took some time this afternoon just to sit and watch the activity, as there is a constant coming and going of all species throughout the day. There's a lot of dominance hierarchies that work themselves out, both between and within species. In general, the larger species get right of way, with a fox sparrow or song sparrow often parking themselves in the middle of the seed tray and refusing to budge or share with anyone. The chickadees prefer the suet feeder, and will occasionally jump down to the tray to grab as sunflower seed whenever there is a brief absence of any other birds. The juncos are happy to feed on the ground, so I spread some extra seed down there, but the more dominant birds in the flock will share the tray feeder when the sparrows aren't hogging it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Six Random Facts Meme

Vickie Henderson tagged me for the Six Random Facts meme. If you've never heard of a meme, you can learn what they are here. I've done memes before, but not on this blog since I wanted to keep it focused on nature and photography. However, as I've become more engrossed in the blogging community, I always enjoy getting a glimpse of the person behind the blog, especially when from their content I can tell we have a lot in common. It lets you learn a little about the storyteller, instead of just always listening to the story. So, here we go....

1) I am a huge hockey fan. This isn't a big secret, but a lesser known fact is that I'm finally living my dream of playing the game....as a goalie. I've always been enamored with what is known as one of the craziest positions in sports, and with the friendly atmosphere of the local roller hockey pick-up games, I decided to get a set of gear off eBay, and give it a shot! So far, it's been a huge success - I've had a blast, and everyone is happy to have a real goalie to shoot at instead of the plywood they've been putting in net. Yeah, that's me in the picture below!


2) You may have gleaned this from a previous post, but for a couple years in middle/high school I dyed my hair various shades of blue, green, and purple. If you knew me as the quiet, reserved child that I was, you would have thought I was one of the least likely candidates ever to do something wild and crazy like dye my hair. It was unlikely, but whatever it was that got into me to dye my hair in the first place never left. With those first blue and green streaks, the new Monika was revealed, and the shy and quiet little girl was gone. Ever since then, I have been more self-confident, quirky, and outgoing, and people have seen the real, you-never-know-what-she's-going-to-do-next Monika. I honestly pinpoint that moment as the one where I came out of my shell. The whole experience also humbled me when I realized how different you are treated - not only by strangers, but by friends and family as well - when something as superficial as hair color is "different". See the photo under 4, below.

3) Orca Encounters wasn't actually my first book. I've always been a worry wart, and when I was eight I wrote and illustrated a children's book about how to conquer your worries and fears that my family self-published. The book, Cynthia and the Web That Worried Her, sold a few copies and was a finalist in the National Written and Illustrated By... contest for books written by and for children.



4) For two and a half years, I owned and trained a young Kiger mustang named Milo. It was challenging to say the least, as I finally found a stubborn streak that matches my own, but it was also one of the most educational. I learned a lot about myself and about animal communication. One of the hardest decisions I had to make was to sell Milo when I just didn't have the time for him while going to college. I still regret it at times, but after a four year break I've just gotten back involved with horses while helping to retrain a rescue horse here on island.


5) I am terribly afraid of flying. While I do, with enough coaxing and drug-induced relaxation, fly when I have to, it is by no means a fun experience for anyone involved. This is one thing I definitely want to work on, because many of the places I want to visit (most of them for the sake of viewing wildlife) will require me to fly. I did manage to fly across the country once earlier this year, and despite my fears, still had my camera in hand to capture the beautiful sunset:


6) Like for many other whale-lovers, my first experience with orcas was at Sea World San Diego. It was apparent from early on, though, that my fascination was deeper than for most, as when I was 12 or 13 my mom dropped me off in the morning when Sea World opened and I spent the entire day sitting next to the orca tanks, observing the behavior of the whales inbetween their shows. I got my first chance to see wild killer whales on a family vacation to Alaska in 1998, and from that point, there was no going back. It was after that trip, while researching the closest possible place to Portland, OR where you could see killer whales, that my family rediscovered the San Juan Islands, where we had been on a family trip in 1990. I've been coming back to the San Juans every year since then, staying longer and longer every summer until, this year, I will for the first time be staying here year round.


Here are the rules to the Six Random Facts Meme:

1) Link to the person who tagged you.
2) Post the rules on your blog.
3) Write six random things about yourself.
4) Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
5) Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6) Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

My tags are:
Jeanne at Whale of a Porpoise
Jason at Nature, Kayak, and Travel
Peggy Sue at On San Juan Island
Dave at Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Photography
Adventures in Nature
and Max at The Apartment Biologist

They're all blogs I encourage you to check out, and you can now easily keep track of them with my new blog rolls on the right!

Monday, December 15, 2008

New Winter Visitors

The snow has encouraged some otherwise shy species to venture forth to my bird feeders. This morning, a spotted towhee was hanging out for quite a while. These birds are usually so shy that I at first wondered if something might be wrong with him, because he didn't seem skittish at all! I still often find myself referring to this bird by its older name, rufous-sided towhee. By looking at this picture you can see why:


This next picture, though slightly out of focus, made me laugh. I was laying down on the floor with the camera resting on the edge of the door so I could be on his level as he stomped through the snow:


The other unexpected visitor was a fox sparrow. Several things tipped me off that this wasn't my similar-looking song sparrow visitor. First of all, it immediately struck me as larger, and indeed the fox sparrow is about 7 inches long compared to 5 1/2 for the song sparrow. Also, the chest streaking is much more triangular, with the spots looking like upward pointing arrows on the fox sparrow. The fox sparrow also lacks the distinct central breast dot, although sometimes the streaking does converge into a central smear. Finally, to confirm my identification, notice the yellow lower mandible of this sparrow's beak. Song sparows have much grayer beaks.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Snow!

I was skeptical, but the snow did arrive late last night. We got maybe an inch and a half, and the temperature stayed in the mid-20s so whatever did accumulate was still around this morning. The island is truly beautiful in the snow. Here's a picture I took looking across at Brown Island. One of my favorite things about snow is how the trees look, all their limbs dusted in white powder.
Mt. Baker also got a fresh blanket of snow, and was visible during a sun break this afternoon. You can see the islands in the foreground all got a bit of snow too. As always, you can click on the images for a larger view, although the picture of Mt. Baker doesn't really do it justice.


Unfortunately, not everything is as wonderous and pristine as the quietly falling snow - I'm suffering from a cold, the roads are icy, and my car isn't great on wintery roads, so I was restricted to taking just a short foray around the neighborhood rather than checking out other parts of the island. To see some beautiful pictures of Lime Kiln Lighthouse in today's snow, check out my friend Jason's blog post from today. Also, our plumbing system is mostly above-ground, so our pipes our frozen and we have no running water! We've definitely hit winter, distinct by its beautifully harsh conditions!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Beautiful and Sunny - Yesterday, That Is


Yesterday was so beautiful and sunny, I just had to get out of the house. I went for a hike down at the south end of the island, where I enjoyed views of grassy hillsides and the water stretching out to the horizon. It was still partly cloudy, and all the land and mountains in the distance were obscured, so it was almost like looking straight out over the ocean, except the water was so calm.

All that has changed today, of course. I woke up to gale force winds and the sound of rain pattering on the roof. It's much chillier out now, and the temperatures are supposed to keep dropping with a chance of some snow over the next couple of days. That would be fun! Still, I can't believe the change from yesterday where it almost felt like early summer, to today where it definitely felt like the depths of winter. Here are a few cheery images from the sunshine yesterday, and I'll definitely post some more if we get even a dusting of snow.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Looking at me looking at you


There were four harbor seals cruising around the marina this afternoon, feeding on several small schools of bait fish. There were three adults all hanging out together, and then one young one, probably a yearling born this last summer, that seemed to be relegated to the periphery of the group. My tactic of photographing them was to locate a school of fish, then wait, as they seemed to come and go from the different schools. For the most part, when they surfaced for a breath they would be farther away, and would all be facing me curiously. Then, I would see them swimming underwater, turning and circling right below me as they circled and caught the small schooling fish. At one point, though, this seal swam past the school of fish and instead passed by looking straight up at me. Luckily I had my camera ready! I always think its cool when there's evidence for mutal curiosity.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mushroom Mania 3

The weather has been rainy and chilly, not conducive to long bird-watching hikes or other wildlife viewing. The whales have still been in the region, but too far away to see from our island. The one thing it's perfect weather and time of year for, though, is mushrooms! Last Sunday there was a nice break in the drizzle and we went to a trail we hadn't been on all season, that loops through the woods near a pond. It's almost like a treasure hunt, slowly strolling through the woods and stirring up the leaves to see what magical little surprises lie beneath. Another thing it's perfect weather for is sitting inside with a blanket and a field guide, so I've succeeded in identifying some of the new species from our last mushroom hunt.

The above photo is of an inky cap. I was excited to find this one because I immediately recognized it from flipping through the field guide and new immediately what it was. This mushroom is similar to and as common as the shaggy mane, seen in my first post about mushrooms as the middle picture on the right.


This one Dyer's polypore, also known (very romantically) as red-brown butt rot, because it usually grows at the base of coniferous trees, eating away at the wood until the tree can easily blow over. This specimen was found at the base of a conifer stump - I wonder if it played a role in the tree falling over? Surprisingly, this mushroom is also used to make a yellowish orange natural dye. It's used to dye wool, but because it doesn't require a mordant it can also be used to dye hair.


This mushroom was a surprise to see because it really stood out as especially bright on the dark forest floor. It's vibrant colors made it easy to identify as the scarlet waxy cap. It's listed as being very common in cold weather in coastal forests, so it must be around, but it's amazing I haven't ever noticed it before. In fact, once you start looking for fungi, it's amazing how many are around that you never notice. It's one of those cases of you don't see until you look.


When I found these little orange cups curled on the ground, they struck me as being shaped like ears. Instead, they're named orange peel fungus, an equally appropriate name. David Arora, known as I mentioned in my last post for his comedic writing style, describes this species in his field guide as looking "like a piece of discarded orange peel but more fragile and not as common."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Operation Orca

I recently finished reading Operation Orca by Daniel Francis and Gil Hewlett, a book that documents the stories of Springer (A73) and Luna (L98).

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Springer and Luna are two young whales that got separated from their pods in the early 2000s. Springer, from A-Pod of the Northern Resident Community, likely got separated when her mother died, and ended up off Vashon Island near Seattle. Luna, from L-Pod of the Southern Resident Community, was an even more unusual situation because his mother was still alive. However, he ended up alone in Nootka Sound off the west end of Vancouver Island. It was crazy that both these situations happened so close together, because never before had a young resident orca been seen away from its pod. In resident pods, offspring stay in their mother's pod for their entire life. Mom and calf are usually inseparable for the first couple of years, as shown in this photo of another L-Pod mom and calf:


The book follows the plight of both whales, first focusing on Springer who was relocated back to her home range and successfully reunited with her pod. Then, the story turns to Luna, who ended up caught in a web of political drama that stood at a stalemate so long that he eventually met his tragic end. The authors do a nice job of contrasting the two stories, showing how in one case so many different groups with different interests (both US and Canadian government agencies, NGOs, tribal communities, aquariums, etc.) overcame their differences to help a whale in trouble, and in another case got so caught up in their disagreements that they failed to do anything at all.

I highly recommend this book if you're unfamiliar with the stories of Springer and Luna, but even if you followed along as their sagas unfolded you will probably learn something from this book. Not only does it go behind the scenes into a lot of the issues surrounding both whales, but the first few chapters are dedicated to an enlightening history of human relationships with the local whales.

For example, a story I found particularly heart-wrenching was from when the Vancouver Aquarium wanted to make a life-size orca sculpture for its entry hallway, and director Murray Newman wanted to kill one in order to make an accurate model. He set up a team near East Point in 1964 in the Canadian Gulf Islands, an area we often cruise by on our summer whale-watching trips. In July, they finally got a chance to use their harpoon gun and hit a whale in the back. The whale, supported by two pod members at the surface, didn't die, and they realized they could take the whale alive, so transported it to Vancouver. The whale was dubbed Moby Doll, a name that demonstrates how little was understood about killer whales at the time - Moby Doll was actually a male.

It's hard to believe that just 40 years ago, killer whales were known as "public enemy number one" in the ocean, and hardly anything was known about them. Undoubtedly, coming from East Point in July, Moby Doll came from the Southern Resident community. His succcessful capture would forever change the world's view of killer whales. People began to realize how intelligent and social they were, and as such began not to fear them or shoot them on sight. However, people also began to realize their value, and the marine capture era begun.

If you're interested in learning the history of how we as a society went from fearing and hating killer whales to having such concern over the future of these two orphaned calves, then Operation Orca is definitely a book for you.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Teleconverter and Birds

It was a pretty dark and cloudy day, probably not the best for going out and playing with my 1.4x telecoverter. But, I wanted to get outside, so I decided to try it out anyway. It proved pretty difficult to get crisp, in-focus photos, in part because of the lack of light. I was also using railings or my car door to brace the camera, when I should really use a tripod with the telecoverter on. Still, I thought I would share some of my results. The photo on the left is of some American wigeon at False Bay. There was also at least one Eurasian wigeon among the flock, shown here in the smaller photo. The Eurasian wigeon is by no means a common bird, but I see it much more frequently than any other Eurasian rarities. You can differentiate the male Eurasian from the American wigeon by the dark cinnamon color cheeks and head with a tan forehead, as opposed to a green and gray head with a white forehead. It was pretty far away, so the photo of the Eurasian isn't the best, but I wanted to share it just because its such an uncommon species to see.

This is actually probably my favorite shot of the day. It's a nice silhouette of a crow, and the sunshine barely peeking through below the clouds along the horizon adds a little hint of color to the sky:


Here is a belted kingfisher photo taken from our front porch. You can tell its a female by the cinnamon belly band, whereas the male just has the blue chest band. This is one of the few bird species in which the female is more colorful than the male. There is a local pair of kingfishers that often chitter their way through our marina, but rarely do they stay still long enough to give me any good photographic opportunities. She sat still for a while, but was still pretty far away, so evne with the teleconverter I had to crop this photo.


Finally, here's a photo of a red-tailed hawk. You can imagine how much better this photo would have been had it been a brighter day. I took this picture around 2:30, and it already seemed like dusk! Still, you can make out the reddish tail feather, which I think is kind of cool.

I guess I'll have to wait for another brighter day, use my tripod, and then try it again!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Winter Vs. Summer Fox

Today the weather was beautiful! It was sunny and calm, so we went for a hike down at American Camp. On one particular trail down there, I often see a red fox trotting along the path, and today was no different. I'm not positive, but I think it's the same fox I see there all the time, especially by looking at the markings on the face and its especially squinty eyes. He's also always trotting down the same path, stopping to peer into the grasses when he senses movement, looking for something to eat. He doesn't seem to be very shy of people, either, although when I stop on the trail he veers off into the grasses to go around me before cutting back to the path and continuing on his way. I don't actually know if it's a male or a female, but we nicknamed him Hank. What really struck me today was the difference between summer coat and winter coat. Check out these two photos taken on the trail, one from back in June and one from today:


What a difference from the scrawny-looking fox of summer to the full-coated fox of winter! I love to see foxes anytime of year, but I must admit from a photographer's point of view I prefer the pristine, downy winter fox to the mangy, patchy summer one.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mushroom Mania 2

After the rains of two days ago, I was anxious to get out into the woods yesterday to see if some fresh mushrooms had popped up. There were all sorts of fungi along the edges of the trail, and with ID guides waiting at home I snapped lots of photos. In addition to several species I'm starting to recognize as common for the area, there were at least a half a dozen new species I hadn't seen before, boosting my collection of local mushroom photos to easily top 30 species. I'm still unfamiliar with a lot of the terminology relating to mushroom morphology, and I have yet to get into it enough to start making spore prints (many species are identified by spore color), but using a combination of online resources and books I was able to tentaively figure out a few of the new species:


The above mushroom looks so unique I thought it would be easy to identify, but it actually took a while to find something that even looked remotely similar. I'm pretty sure this is a white jelly mushroom, and there were a couple of little clusters of them along the trail yesterday. They all seemed to be fresh, young specimens, but as they "open" fully, the top bulb flattens into a kind of tongue-like structure with little spore-bearing teeth on the underside. I didn't know to look for the teeth, which is the only thing that leaves me in doubt to the ID. It was hard to get the camera to focus on these, as they're so flat and spacey looking to me it looked like they might glow in the dark!


This abundant fungus was found in clusters ringing the edges of fallen logs that had been cut into pieces and stacked along the side of the trail. It is appropriately named turkey tail, for its fan shape and bands of brown color. It's one of the most common fores mushrooms and is found all across North America, although the colors can range from pale and tan to dark reddish brown to the mid-tone oranges seen here. It is believed to contain medicinal qualities that help strengthen the immune system, and one of my field guides points out that it makes a great natural chewing gum found trail-side while hiking.


The closest I can come on this species is the black elfin saddle, identified by its ribbed stem and knobby black cap. It's listed as fairly common in western woods, but similar to many poisonous species, although the photos I have make it fairly distinct from the false morel which is much more tan/orange in color. It's not apparent where the name elfin saddle comes from, but Google research may be hindered by the fact that there is a band with the same name!

In addition to books by David Arora, who describes mushrooms and mushroom hunting not only with eloquence but with a fair dose of comedy as well, I should give props to what have become my most relied-upon online resources: The Mushroom Expert for the species descriptions and Rogers Mushrooms for the visual keys and and trait-searchable easy keys.